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Antiquity Vol 83 Issue 319 March 2009

The Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi), Syria

Robert Mason


The Abrahamic faiths, being Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have a long tradition of seeking God in the desert. Hence it is understandable that in the early Byzantine period a number of monasteries were founded in the desert for their residents to retreat from mundane existence and take up a life of reflection (Hirschfeld 1992). One of these is in the mountains of the Syrian desert, 90km north of Damascus, and is named after St. Moses the Abyssinian - Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (Figures 1 & 2). Unusually, the monastery survived the uncertainties around the incorporation of Syria into the Islamic world in AD 634-635, and also the Crusades from 1098 onwards, until it was finally abandoned in the nineteenth century. A community was re-established at the site in the 1980s, and it is a functioning monastery again.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Location of the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian, Syria.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 2
Figure 2. View of St. Moses from the south in 2004.
Click to enlarge.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Plan of main monastery buildings.
Click to enlarge.

The preliminary survey

The first part of the project was to undertake preliminary reconnaissance of the area around the monastery. St. Moses is a laura, a community of hermitages with a central church where the monks come together only on a Sunday in order to pray and procure supplies. At St. Moses the monks would have lived in caves spread along the dry river valley or wadi that leads into the mountains from the main monastery buildings. These are all about the same size, roughly 2m in each direction, and appear to have been worked out of the rock by the monks. Just over 30 caves have been located in the survey, together with other structures (buildings, cisterns, etc).

Figure 4
Figure 4. Isometric projection of various hypothetical phases of construction.
Click to enlarge.

The architecture

The 2007 season involved study of the architecture of the main buildings. The first phase of occupation at the site is hypothesised as being Roman (Figures 2 & 3), and is represented by very large blocks typically about 50-60cm high, 80cm wide, and 50cm thick. There are two structures with this stonework, and the working hypothesis is that the southernmost is a Roman watchtower, built to watch the Damascus-Palmyra road, the main route from the East, which is visible in the desert plain below the monastery to the East. The northerly structure is postulated to be built as the foundation of the monastery, possibly in the late fourth century, after the destruction of the south structure, possibly by earthquake.

The church itself is constructed in a number of phases (Figure 4). The core of the church is made of re-used 'Roman' blocks and other stones, in a quality of work that is probably indicative of monks rather than masons. This early church is of a type that is well known in monasteries (Hirschfeld 1992: 112-30), and can be dated to the late fourth or fifth century. The next phase was obviously executed by professional masons, with stones well cut and dressed on all sides, and laid in standard courses. This phase created a church of the basilical plan typical of the sixth century. Similar stonework was used to rebuild the watchtower.

Figure 5
Figure 5. St. Barbara, patron saint of masons, from the 1208 phase of paintings.
Click to enlarge.

Further construction occurred, but the next major phase of building was due to a disaster. In various parts of the building large cracks can be seen created by horizontal movement in two directions at once, evidence of geological faulting. Parts of the buildings had collapsed and been replaced by very rough stonework of rubble in disordered courses, with wood beams incorporated into the wall. This type of masonry represents repairs following an earthquake. A number of studies have been made on the historical accounts of earthquakes in the region of Syria, a moderately unstable area due to the Dead Sea Rift Zone which runs along the west of the region (Ambraseys & Melville 1988; Ambraseys 2004). The twelfth century was particularly active on this fault, with a series of devastating shocks. A consequence of the necessary reconstruction, was the creation of the most famous mural paintings in the Levant (Dodd 2001), dated by inscription to 1208 (Figure 5), as it is now evident that the plaster and paint was really just to cover the bad earthquake repairs.

Apart from reconstruction to deal with earthquake damage, the terrace was built up in this period. The tower to the west of the church was later increased by a storey with stonework typical of defensive architecture of the thirteenth century. Further phases of construction are attested in later centuries, some with inscriptions dating to the fifteenth century.

The future

Excavation is planned for future seasons, including right under the altar, the likely spot for the crypt, and also some of the hermit's caves, and other structures in the valley. Further survey of the uplands around the monastery and down towards the Damascus-Palmyra road is planned.


Initial research on this project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. I'd also like to thank Dr. Michel Maqdisi of the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums of Syria for his support; and also all the community at the monastery of St. Moses.


  • AMBRASEYS, N.N. 2004. The 12th century seismic paroxysm in the Middle East: a historical perspective. Annals of Geophysics 2/3: 733-58.
  • AMBRASEYS, N.N. & C.P. MELVILLE. 1988. An analysis of the eastern Mediterranean earthquake of 20 May 1202, in W.H.K. Lee, H. Meyers & K. Shimazaki (ed.) Historical seismograms and earthquakes of the world: 181-200. San Diego (CA): Academic Press.
  • DODD, E.C. 2001. The frescoes of Mar Musa al-Habashi: a study in medieval painting in Syria. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.
  • HIRSCHFELD, Y. 1992. The Judean desert monasteries in the Byzantine period. New Haven (CT): Yale University Press.
  • MASON, R.B.J. 2004. Shine like the sun: lustre-painted and associated pottery from the medieval Middle East. Costa Mesa (CA): Mazda Press; & Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum Press.


  • Robert Mason
    Department of World Cultures, Royal Ontario Museum & Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto, Canada (Email: robert.mason@rom.on.ca)

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